If observers bother to look at threats in Northeast Asia at all in these days of exploding Middle Eastern terrorism, they usually focus on North Korea. While critically important, North Korea is today’s problem. The situation there will likely be solved during our lifetimes. But the long-term threat to peace and stability in the region has deeper historical roots. Comparatively speaking North Korea is young, only in existence since 1945. While that may seem forever to the historically challenged, it is smoke in the wind compared to the centuries-old enmity that persists between Japan and China. And that hostility, never far below the surface, has become more open of late.
Unquestionably North Korea’s behavior does exacerbate hostility between the ancient enemies. China is sole sponsor to the erratic genius dictator, Kim Jong-il. Without large infusions of cash, oil, and food from the Peoples Republic, North Korea would collapse. So when Kim “tests” rockets by firing them over the Japanese islands, kidnaps Japanese citizens, floods Japan with narcotics, and counterfeits 10,000 Yen notes, Japanese officials tend to hold China partially responsible for reining the dictator in. When Beijing refuses to hold Kim accountable, it irritates the Japanese citizenry and becomes a political hot point.
While the chance of open hostilities between China and Japan are thankfully slim at the moment, the caustic bitterness and mutual sarcasm both sides have been using publicly has slipped the bonds of the oily diplomatic speech we usually hear, particularly among Asian powers. The verbal fireworks were initiated by Japan’s Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, thought by many to be front runner to succeed Liberal Democratic Party Prime Minister Junichiro Koizume.
Though his Chinese counterpart has not been far behind in heated rhetoric, the Chinese tend to speak superciliously to Japan. “We have made our consistent position clear on how to improve and develop China-Japan relations,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao at a press conference on March 30. “Japan is well aware of our position. Under the current circumstances, Japan should make positive endeavor to improve and develop our bilateral relations.” In other words: listen to us; we know what’s best for you. More than the words, the tone is designed to aggravate Japanese listeners.
When all else fails, Chinese leaders can and do frequently play their trump card: World War II. Since the Second World War, Japan has largely conducted business in a self-effacing manner, eschewing all manner of military development that is not vetted first with regional players, including the U.S. Nevertheless, it took a long time before Japan officially apologized for WWII atrocities against China and Korea. Opening old wounds, the Japanese insist on visiting Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, in Japanese Shinto belief a place that is home to the souls of the 2.5 million Japanese war dead over the decades.
To the anger of its rivals the spirits of dozens of war criminals are also said to reside at Yasukuni. So when Koizume made the hike to the shrine in view of the world media, the visit raised the issue of the 14 Class A war criminals there, including General Hideki Tojo. Aso raised the ante by suggesting that the Emperor also visit the shrine. The late Emperor Hirohito stopped visiting Yasukuni in 1975, and Emperor Akihito has not officially visited. Regional neighbors and WWII enemies recall the danger of a militant Japan and prefer to see those traditions of bushido, the way of the warrior, lie quietly.
It has only been in recent years that the euphemistically named Japanese Ground Self Defense forces have been deployed overseas. First in response to UN requests for peacekeepers in Cambodia and other regional hot spots, but lately as part of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. Japan maintains a small but symbolic 600-soldier contingent in Samawa, Iraq, a city in southwestern Iraq’s Shi’ite country, near the Biblically ancient city of Ur.
Samawa is home to a small group of Assyrian-descended Christians who live in the constant presence of potentially hostile Muslims, many of whom would gladly kill the Christian men and rape the women as part of Shari’a law. The Japanese military contingent – also targeted by the Islamofascists as heathen idolaters – helps maintain order and works on infrastructure improvements in this city that was long neglected, indeed intentionally held back, by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-based Ba’ath party minions. Like other Coalition powers, Japan prefers to fight these battles abroad rather than at home.
In the face of Chinese criticism of Japan’s role in Iraq, Foreign Minister Taro Aso said withdrawal of Japanese troops from southern Iraq would depend on stability there. Acknowledging the reality of the situation, Aso added, “the creation of the Iraqi government is in no way complete.” Future Japanese decisions about timing and degree of withdrawal will no doubt depend in large part on British, Australian, and South Korean actions in regard to their respective troop contingents.
It is increasingly clear, however, that tensions between the two are rising. Aso leveled a harsh accusation at China, calling the Beijing government a “military threat,” primarily for the level of spending that China has devoted to arming itself. This armament has included development of weapons systems – such as blue water navy, space, and long range air – that lend themselves more to aggressive than defensive purposes. Other analysts, such as CIA Director Porter Goss, agree that the Chinese military forces “threaten” U.S. and allied interests. Not all U.S. officials agree.
Predictably, entrenched State Department officials – chronically sycophantic towards China – refuse to label the Peoples Republic of China a threat. As reported by Washington Times’ Bill Gertz, they “consider China a non-threatening state that will evolve into a benign power through trade and other global economic interaction.” Across the river at Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is more cautious, insisting that a recently – released Pentagon strategy report “include references to China's military buildup and the need for the U.S. military to respond to it.”
While it is unlikely that China-Japan or America-China issues will grow to crisis proportions overnight, we would be foolish to ignore festering problems and growing military capabilities because of what many might consider legitimate distractions elsewhere in the global fight. America is capable of walking and chewing gum simultaneously, but also has a history of ignoring problems till they explode in our face. A necessary first step is a long-overdue housecleaning at State, CIA, and other agencies who continue to pamper Beijing.
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